Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 441

Markham has been called “the first real poet of Labor.” This poem called attention to social problems and served as the topic of discussion for a wide range of audiences, including ministers, politicians, professors, students, debaters, and orators.

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In order to understand why Markham wrote as he did, it is necessary to have some knowledge of his background. Markham was born in Oregon City, Oregon, the youngest child of pioneer parents who divorced soon after his birth. He moved with his mother, who was very demanding, to Lagoon Valley, California, and was put to lonely and difficult work on her farm and ranch before he was ten years old. He was constantly aware of the grind of toil. He wrote about his experience of hoeing the garden for long periods of time, as he encountered pain in his back. Markham was especially interested in the trials and tribulations of poor working people. He was concerned about the external forces and circumstances that affected them.

Markham experienced some hardships as he attempted to accomplish a number of his goals. Getting an education was not easy. Initially, Markham’s mother did not financially assist him with his educational goals. Markham even ran away from home for a short period of time in 1867, and he did not return until his mother decided to help finance his studies. After matriculating at California College in Vacaville, he received his teacher’s certificate. Later he studied at San Jose Normal School and Christian College in Santa Rosa. In 1872, Markham began his teaching career in Los Berros, California. Subsequently, he held an administrative position as superintendent of schools at Placerville, California. Additionally, Markham experienced three bad marriages.

Continuously developing his social and spiritual beliefs, Markham left the Methodist faith in 1876 and began to follow Thomas Lake Harris, a spiritualist and utopian socialist. Markham, like Harris, placed emphasis on universal charity and social harmony. He was interested in socialist utopian reform. Markham believed that spiritual faith could help to unify humankind.

“The Man with the Hoe” was a result of Markham’s personal experiences and all the reading and thinking he had been doing for many years. Millet’s painting was the stimulus to Markham’s imagination; it was a picture in words for Markham’s mind. The poet transformed the images into words and put them on paper. If it had not been for Millet’s visual artistic expression, perhaps Markham would not have received the inspiration he needed to express his ideas in “The Man with the Hoe.” Markham’s poem is still timely and appropriate because it focuses on relevant social problems, which are still unsolved.

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